Election 2015 Northern Ireland

Health Minister Jim Wells: Police investigate gay abuse remarks

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Media captionA row has broken out over comments made by Northern Ireland health minister Jim Wells, as BBC News NI Political Correspondent Stephen Walker reports

Police are investigating comments made by Northern Ireland Health Minister Jim Wells after he linked child abuse and gay relationships.

He told a hustings event: "You don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected...."

The minister was then interrupted by uproar from the audience.

In a later statement, he said: "I accept that one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern."

Mr Wells added: " I regret having wrongly made that remark about abuse and I'm sorry those words were uttered. The comment did not reflect my view nor that of my party."

'Mask has slipped'

The police said they had received a complaint and officers were currently making enquiries.

The Northern Ireland Assembly's health committee, which holds the minister and his department to account, has also asked Mr Wells to attend its meeting next week to discuss his remarks.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: "Those comments have lifted the lid on some really unpleasant views. The mask has slipped.

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Media captionSpeaking in Sheffield, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the "mask has slipped" following Jim Wells' comments

"I've been warning for weeks that while, of course, we should be alarmed about the prospects of Ed Miliband dancing to the tune of Alex Salmond, we should be equally alarmed at the prospect of a hapless David Cameron, minority Conservative administration, dancing to the tune of Nigel Farage, the right wing of his own party and some of these truly, truly, backward looking views from the DUP."

Mr Wells, the DUP South Down candidate in the 7 May election, made the comments during a discussion on gay marriage.

DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said the DUP stood by Mr Wells.

Mr Robinson said Mr Wells "accepted the remarks were offensive and that is why he has apologised".

'Under pressure'

However, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Mr Wells' position as health minister was "no longer tenable".

"I accept that he is under pressure as a result of his wife's serious illness and I acknowledge that he has apologised," said Mr McGuinness.

"However, I think those words will ring hollow when judged against the DUP's opposition to marriage equality, its support for a ban on blood donations from gay men and opposition to adoption by gay couples."

In an initial statement, Mr Wells said he was "saddened that some people were trying to misrepresent my comments".

In a second statement on Friday morning, Mr Wells said the past few weeks had "been extremely difficult" for him personally as he had "just come from a hospital visit".

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Media captionDUP leader Peter Robinson said Mr Wells comments were not those of the Democratic Unionist Party

He added: "Within seconds of realising this error, I asked the chairman to let me back in and twice corrected my remarks before the debate moved on.

"This clarification has been confirmed by the journalists present at the event. Partial clips, spin and selective reporting regrettably miss this.

"The neglect or abuse of children is awful and happens in unstable relationships whether they are heterosexual or homosexual.

"I make no distinction between anyone who neglects or abuses a child regardless of their sexual orientation. I trust people will accept my explanation and my apology."

'Big backlash'

The editor of the Down Recorder Paul Symington chaired Thursday night's event.

"You can tell by the recording that the vast majority of the audience members were outraged," he said.

"The debate was reasonably good tempered up until that point, but once he made those remarks there was a pretty big backlash."

Analysis: BBC NI political correspondent Gareth Gordon

Mr Wells' apology might have cut more ice with the critics if it had not been preceded a few hours earlier with a non apology issued through the party press office at 11 minutes past midnight.

For now he has the party leader's public backing, though it's still unclear how long Mr Wells can remain as Northern Ireland's health minister.

A lot may depend on how much media coverage the story gets in Britain.

Does Jim Wells apology cut ice?

Chris Hazzard, Sinn Féin's Westminster candidate for the constituency who was at the debate, said the comments "call into question Mr Wells' responsibility and ability to run a health service for all".

Mr Wells' party colleague Pam Cameron, the South Antrim MLA, distanced herself from the remarks.

She tweeted: "If what I am hearing from #sdhustings is being reported correctly I as a DUP MLA disagree and disassociate myself from such comments."

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption South Antrim MLA Pam Cameron took to Twitter to distance herself from Mr Wells' comments

The Ulster Unionist Party said the comments were "absolutely appalling... and totally wrong".

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt told the BBC's Nolan Show that an electoral pact between his party and the DUP, in four Westminster constituencies, remained in place.

Assembly rules

However, he added: "Jim Wells needs to do more in deed and in action to prove that the real Jim Wells is reflected in this morning's statement rather than in yesterday's comment.

"If the real Jim Wells is reflected in yesterday's comment I do not have any time for Jim Wells to be the minister for health."

South Down Conservative candidate Felicity Buchan also attended the hustings event.

"The Conservative Party and I personally do not in any way agree with what was said."

Alliance North Down MLA, Stephen Farry, said: "There is absolutely no link between the incidence of abuse and neglect and the sexual orientation of parents," he said.

'No distinction'

"Nor indeed, is there any difference between two-parent and single-parent households."

The SDLP said it was going to submit a motion of no confidence in Mr Wells.

Margaret Ritchie, who is standing as an SDLP candidate, said his comments were "completely unacceptable".

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Ivan Lewis, said: "It is right that Jim Wells has apologised for these highly inappropriate remarks. There can be no justification for false and stigmatising statements about LGBT people.

"There should be a commitment to zero tolerance of homophobia across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland."

Mr Wells' remarks have also been rejected by a child protection body set up by his own department.

Glenys Johnston, from the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), said: "There is no evidence that children who are brought up by same sex couples are any more at risk of abuse than those brought up by heterosexual couples."

In his earlier statement, Mr Wells said that during the debate he had refused to agree with an audience member that "marriage should be redefined".

"At the hustings event, I said that marriage was a stable environment to raise children. I am saddened that some people were trying to misrepresent my comments.

"Where there are non-stable relationships involving children, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the children suffer.

"I make no distinction between anyone who neglects a child on the basis of their sexual orientation."

Other candidates standing in the South Down constituency are: UUP's Harold McKee, UKIP's Henry Reilly and the Alliance Party's Martyn Todd.

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